Colin Lubner, Villanova University
Uncle Boris had begun to snore, which meant dinner was just about ready.
It wasn’t. Nana, who weighed slightly less than a rain-soaked umbrella, chewed everyone out. Food was out on the dining room table, all the normal American things like turkey and cranberry sauce on one side, antipasta and black-skinned fish on the other. Apparently something was missing, though, some quality of air detectable only by angry old Sicilian ladies, so Nana rapped Kev’s knuckles with the flat of the turkey knife when he reached for a roll. Kev laughed, but Mom got worked up. Nana was always doing stuff like that—parenting for her. She was going to fucking kill one of us, one of these days.
“Better dead than fat,” the little woman muttered, molars grinding the pit of an olive. Her hands performed some witchcraft involving the arrangement of the potatoes. “Christ, look at him, Paula.”
“He plays football, Mom—”
“He’d be better at real football, block up the whole net—no.”
Kev had reached, laughing, for another roll. He recoiled, wringing his hand, still laughing, dancing an erratic circle.
“How’s the season going?” Aunt Kathy, my mom’s younger sister, asked. She lived in Colorado with three identical-looking black cats. She’d been slowly destroying our guest bedroom since flying in a week ago.
It was addressed to my mom, but my dad answered.
“Eight-and-oh, Kath, big one at Merton this Friday—” he paused to tilt down the last of his wine “—go on, Kev, take a roll.”
Nana inspected the fish as if preparing it for its viewing. “Taps” played in my head; Mr. Fish wore a sleeveless tux. “Boy’s just like his father,” she whispered. I was unsure if she was talking to me or the fish. “Thinks everything’s a handout—” she raised her voice “—would you like some more Syrah, John?”
“You know, I would.”
Nana went back to muttering. “Get your father some wine, Alyse. God knows he can’t get it himself.”
I made for the kitchen, stopping only to collect wine glasses, a bit resentful at having to act as waitress on my day off. Only a bit, though. I enjoyed serving, and was glad for the excuse to duck questions about nonexistent boyfriends, equally elusive jobs. My mom shook her head when I offered, even though her glass was nearly empty, and glanced meaningfully at my father.
As I slipped sideways into the kitchen (necessary, for Poppop filled most of the door frame), Nana called out, “And check on that uncle of yours, sorry sack of—”
There was the kitchen; then, where a mudroom might have been, there was the wine room.
My mom’s family had run the Delaware vineyard as far back as Nana’s nana. They’d been winemakers before that, too, when they’d lived in Sicily. I imagined Nana must have enjoyed her childhood, the way she went on about it—a little girl with a suspicious face, I pictured, stomping grapes like they were the eyeballs of her enemies.
She grew three varietals: bruised-skinned Syrah, pine cone-bunched Pinot Noir, and, in the field closest to the turnpike, sour Riesling. Her mother had grown more. As vintners began to bop around in golf carts, though, and wineries themselves serve as backdrop to Gatsby-esque constructions of white and air, Nana had to cut back. She’d won awards in Delaware’s small corner of the wine-making world—for her Syrah, in particular, although she was fondest of her Riesling. But the D’Antonios would never host weddings, as she told my mom. And God forbid they install a koi pond.
I set the glasses on the knife-nicked block of wood at the center of the wine room, paused to breathe in its mix of balsa, and oak, and casked wine, then rummaged in a drawer for a waiter’s corkscrew. This was Nana’s third bottle of Syrah they were starting on, a 2012 vintage. Uncle Boris had drunk most—
The cork bent. Like I was some green hand, waiting tables less than a week.
I poured, spilled some, took a swig. Hesitated.
I could attempt atmospheric reentry to the dining room—
—like a five-foot-four, recently-graduated, well-read rocket—
—or I could check on Uncle Boris.
I left the glasses. As I passed the dining room, I heard Nana call Kev fat again, dipping into her native Italian—grasso!—because English, this time, apparently hadn’t been enough. Poppop rumbled something about his wife watching her language.
Uncle Boris was asleep. At first I thought he wasn’t breathing, but then his stomach slowly, hugely ballooned. Deflated. A possible repeat of last year, then, when he’d slept through dinner, waking in time only for dessert and another glass of my grandmother’s wine. He was my father’s brother, a Zolosky. A family whose primary character trait was to never pass up what God saw fit in all his Slavic cruelty to give them. And that included dessert.
And my grandmother’s wine.
Next to Uncle Boris, on the end table, a phone vibrated.
I thought it was Uncle Boris’s. But he didn’t have a phone. (He was convinced that the Government or Aliens or simply They tracked you through your cellphone. Once, when I told him about Google, he told me about G.O.O.G.L.E.: God’s Omnipotent Oligarchy, Guiding Losers’ Existences. Dot com.)
My father’s phone, forgotten on the end table, vibrated.
I normally wouldn’t have looked. But he’d been pissing me off most of the day, first by making my mom drive down to Delaware, saying he’d drive home, even though we both knew he’d be way too drunk by then. It had rained the night before, and my mom hated driving on wet roads. And he’d been getting on me even more about applying to jobs I knew I’d hate, where you typed out memos announcing Brenda From Accounting’s 40th Surprise Party, or how to properly insult babies. So I picked it up, and I looked.
His passcode was 1999, the year Kev was born. The first message was from a woman named Leila Russo. Her son played on Kev’s football team. It read, “You going to the game tomorrow.”
Another came through as I was reading this. It popped up, simply, “?”
I wasn’t angry, not really, as I scrolled through the rest of the messages. They were innocent enough: “Kev’s knee feeling any better?” or “You gonna be at the fundraiser?” It was their frequency that bothered me, and the way she didn’t mention my mother’s name. I felt kind of sick, mostly, years’ worth of recognition settling into my chest like a summer cold. That was the worst part: I’d seen something like this coming. The Zolosky brothers were victims, victims since their potato-digging ancestors, but in my dad that particular genetic strain had mutated. He’d worked his way up. Worked to the point where he could marry a Paula D’Antonio, the well-off latest in a history of well-off winemakers, a woman who wanted desperately to be anything else. And maybe he wanted to keep working up. Find a woman who had the good grace to accept her easier birthright. Because why wouldn’t you want that, Paula? Why work, when you’ve got it so damn good?
Everyone had finally sat down. Nana had stopped fussing over the settings; she’d settled for a verbal sort of silence, damning with her eyes first daughter then grandson then fish, because that bastard just had to die like he had.
“I thought you’d died, Alyse,” she said.
“Nope,” I said. My voice was too loud, huge. Pachydermic.
I’d had rather a lot when I’d gone back for the wine.
“How’s Uncle Boris?” my mom asked. Everyone heard the other questions, the ones buried underneath: Is he still breathing? Did you hear a little pop, like a liver giving out?
“Off in dreamland.” I sat next to Poppop, who was beaming, silent, massive, probably reciting grace in that gleaming head of his. “Oh.” I reached into my pocket. “Your phone was in there, Dad.”
“Mm.” He swallowed too fast, coughed a bit, bumped a candleholder as he reached across. “Thanks, Al.”
It was the name that did it. He’d called me that when I was little and had worn my hair short, like a boy’s.
“You know what?” I said. “We should all go to Kev’s game tomorrow. As a family. That’d be fun.”
“I’m not driving up,” Nana said. “Please, your grandfather’s saying grace.”
“I’m in the lab tomorrow, anyway,” my mom said. “We have a protein culture that’s nearly ready—”
“Paula, for Christ’s sake—” Nana said.
Poppop shifted tectonically.
“Okay, for your grandfather’s sake—”
My dad had been fiddling with his phone under the table. Something he saw—his opened texts, I guessed—sent him thumping his chest, managing a strained sort of smile.
“Still driving home?” my mom asked drily.
“No, I just—” more coughing “—I was just thinking—you know how something, sometimes, just hits you? That’s what happened. I was thinking how one day you’ll be done at the lab, and I’ll be out of the office, and we can both go to Kev’s college games, then come back to our vineyard—and maybe, maybe Al could be in on it, run advertising or something with that degree of hers. But it’d just be the two of us, in the house. And we’d share a glass in the kitchen, you know, the sun just going down, an autumn breeze, how beautiful you’d look in the light—”
“You can’t wait for me to die,” Nana said. “How sweet. Grace.”
I kept my eyes open for grace. I’ve always done so, ever since I was little and didn’t really get what the hell everyone was closing theirs for. It seemed silly. Something could show up, or someone—Santa, Uncle Boris, a particularly cunning food thief. And no one would know, except for God, who’d probably be having a good laugh Up There.
About halfway through, as Poppop’s tenor trembled over some bit from Luke, my dad opened his eyes. He squinted into his lap, where his phone was, where I assumed another text had just buzzed rather close to its eventual goal.
“Dad’s talking to someone,” I said.
Then I giggled. It was so stupid, all of it. Mr. Fish, being dead ain’t so bad.
My mom’s eyes didn’t open; they were closed, one second, and then they weren’t. She stared at the table cloth. She looked like she was working at one of her DNA problems, thinking very hard. She still held my father’s hand.
“Just talking,” I added. “It’s all very innocent. With that Italian woman—Kev’s friend. His mom.”
Kev looked mortified. In a flash, I realized that he’d known, and that sick feeling resettled—this time higher, liked I’d swallowed alcohol too fast.
“I talk to a lot of people,” my dad said, too quickly. “Al—I’m talking to you right now.”
Nana wasn’t cackling, as I’d expected her to. She was looking at my mother, waiting for her reaction. Her hand reached out as if feeling for a stovetop’s heat.
My mom pushed her chair back. She was shaking her head slowly, with a little up-down to her chin, staring at the tablecloth.
“I talk all the time—”
“Is this true?” Poppop said. He rose like some eastern, dome-headed god.
“Can we please talk, Paula, this isn’t healthy, not here—”
“Finished eating?” another voice said.
Uncle Boris stood in the doorway, swaying slightly. He was smiling, I thought, though his beard confused the issue. He rephrased the question. “Anything left?”
“Boris,” my dad said, quietly. “Please go back to sleep.”
But Uncle Boris moseyed his way around the table, pulled out the empty chair next to my Aunt Kathy. She’d stayed silent and wide-eyed throughout—observing the married life, perhaps, and deciding she was just fine.
“This fish,” my uncle said, “looks divine.”
“Paula,” Nana said. Her hand made another unsteady advance at my mom’s elbow.
I got up and went to the wine room. My throat felt stuck in some middle hysteria, caught between a sob and a laugh.
The wine room wasn’t silent—no rooms, I’d realized, were truly silent, what with air conditioning and plumbing, and I could hear Poppop thundering about God and loyalty from further in the house—but its relative quiet was enough. Oak, and fermented grapes. My own sweat.
I went to the door, pushed into the November evening, and sat on the back steps, looking down the asphalt path leading back into Nana’s acreage. To either side, her vineyard’s rows tracked into the distance, rising to meet opposite woodlines. Trellises meandered, not quite parallel. The scant remaining grape leaves answered the day’s last light—russet and gold flecks against the damp black of the frames. It was cold, and the air smelled like earth. A turkey crooned from somewhere in the trees. Rushing noises drifted in from the turnpike, where trucks were turning headlights on against the encroaching gloom.
I could see it, I realized. This life: rising in the morning, crunching over mulch, pruning and clipping, expanding my vernacular to include terms like veraison and loess. Nana would set me on the deck, bottles of Syrah and Pinot before me, and liken the former’s tannicity to putting a teabag on your tongue, and explain the barnyard nose on the latter as the smell of wet hay in summer. And scold me when I mixed them up. I’d ask after her Riesling, and she’d tell me I wasn’t ready. I could write in the winters, chop wood, be a real Thoreau. My mom would visit sometimes, I thought, while I slotted easily into her birthright, her brain humming with ribosomes and protein cultures, whatever mysteries of life to which she still couldn’t find answers. But maybe my dad wouldn’t visit. And maybe Kev wouldn’t, either.
Around the side of Nana’s house, the storm door rattled. Poppop’s voice boomed out, a second of godly fury. Then Uncle Boris emerged onto the driveway. His left hand pinched a plate of cannoli like a collection cap; his right brandished a bottle by its neck. He began on a swaying, winding journey into the vineyard, avoiding by accident or luck the leaf-rimmed puddles of autumn, humming a song I couldn’t place. I watched him for a while, until my cheeks and fingers and toes started to grow hard and numb. Then I went back inside.
Colin Lubner is a senior at Villanova University, where he studies math and English in the time left over from his writing. His flash fiction has been published on 100wordstory.org. He hates identifying his credentials, and doubts if he will ever get over the discomfort of writing about himself in third person.
He is at work on a novel (aren’t we all?), and plans to teach high school math and English after graduation.